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Though the short-lived career of teenage singer Carl Campbell is bound to be full of holes and analysis of his limited output is at risk for becoming redundant when he’s beset by the same technical limitations that comes with having a voice emanating from his nostrils rather than his throat, the same can’t be said when trying to piece together the larger story surrounding the Houston recording scene at the midway point of the Twentieth Century.

So consider this entry one part music review, one part curious speculation and though admittedly it’s always dangerous to try and make even educated guesses in the absence of more definitive proof of events, it’s possible that doing so may lead to someone else trying to answer the questions we raise.

At least that’s the optimistically blind hope going into this one.


Just A Wee Bit Hard To Hold
Alright, the record first for those who have come to expect some sort of breakdown on the sounds each song produces.

Aside from saying you could pretty much read the review for the flip side of this single, Gettin’ High, and just change a few of the specific descriptions and it’d hold up pretty well, we can be a little more thorough by saying that Campbell’s nasal tone is becoming a little hard on the ears, distracting us from trying to soak up the rest of the production because it sounds so harsh listening to him sing…

Assuming that it’s actually him singing.

Yup, that’s our first speculative point to bring up. When we reviewed his debut, Ooh Wee Baby, we praised the vocals as being strong and rich in tone and projected confidently. Ever since the singing has been nothing of the sort, almost certainly because it’s somebody else entirely who’s handling the role.

My guess is that because all of the Campbell sides since then have the same high whiny nasal voice it’s actually the first record, or at least the first side of the first record, which features an “impostor” using his name. Whoever it may have been (possibly Connie Mack Booker, someone who may have been the pianist for that session if it wasn’t Lonnie Lyons) could’ve cut just one song and needing something to pair it with stuck it with another song, Between Midnight And Dawn, done by Campbell and Freedom Records just used his name for both sides to make it simpler.

Now of course it’s also possible that since Campbell was 16 when he recorded these his voice broke at the exact moment they ran the tape for Ooh Wee Baby and it captured him entering his “adult” phase, just as it’s possible that there are a hundred and forty million daily readers of this website all using the same internet connection so the total number of people coming here doesn’t show up in the website’s official visitor stats I suppose.

Believe what you will.

But whatever the true circumstances what we’re left with as listeners is this: Since we started off with a “better” Carl Campbell it’s sort of been a let-down to meet the real Carl Campbell who doesn’t sing nearly as well, which can’t help but contribute to the underwhelming response to Goin’ Down To Nashville, a pretty fair composition that needs a more commanding voice to sell it.


Fine, Sweet And Mellow
It’s really a shame that Campbell’s skills don’t include singing because this is the kind of song that might’ve led somewhere, even if that just meant consistent club work around town for a few years.

Goin’ Down To Nashville has a pretty predictable plot about a girl he knows who is eluding him – purposefully we suspect – yet the manner in which he conveys this information to us is clever enough to bring a few smiles.

The key point to the story is how doggedly determined Campbell is to locate his “baby” despite her apparent desire to remain in hiding. He’s not at all menacing as he recounts this tale, and truthfully with that voice you wouldn’t be too scared of him even if he were wielding a butcher knife, and so it comes across as humorously pathetic more than anything. I actually think that was intentional based on some of the more ludicrous declarations regarding his quest, “Well there’s no doubt about it/She is in this world somewhere!” which leads us to believe he’s just wandering aimlessly around the country hoping to run into her by chance.

The slow pace doesn’t help his task any – of putting the song across I mean, not finding his fleeing girlfriend – as it only serves to isolate those vocals in a way that you can’t help but envision him struggling to unlock the pliers fastened to his nostrils before the song ends.

He’s not going to win you over with vocal skill, so it’s his hang-dog outlook and his sad sack delivery which will have to do the trick and maybe in that way his limited voice is an asset rather than a drawback, though seeking sympathy for such an affliction is hardly a reliable way to court an audience.

Maybe that’s why he gives so much of the running time over to someone far more capable of drawing your interest with his actual skills, namely Goree Carter whose guitar is the primary support in Campbell’s travelogue and may in fact be the reason why they’re headed to Nashville rather than Baton Rouge, Corpus Christie or Salt Lake City for that matter.

Worth His Weight In Gold
Here’s the second speculative aspect of the record centering on the source of the song itself.

We don’t have nearly enough of Goree Carter’s story to form the kind of exhaustive biography he rightly deserves for being such an important pioneering rock guitarist, but we do have a lot more information on him than we have on Campbell, and what we know tells us that it was Carter who went to Nashville early on before even recording in 1949.

He’d been seen at Houston El Dorado ballroom by local promoter Lola Cullum who liked what she heard. Through her connections she got him booked at The Club Arrow in Nashville, Tennessee (only 800 miles away in case you were thinking of making the trek yourself) where he played in A Battle Of The Blues contest with her client Lightnin’ Hopkins, already a big name on the Texas blues scene.

Carter was still a kid, 17 years old or so, and was traveling out of state for the first time, and of course Cullum kept most of the money she owed Carter which left a bad taste in his mouth regarding the music industry. He was so impressive on stage while there however that the club extended his engagement for another six weeks, during which Cullum returned to Houston leaving Carter to make his way back across country by himself.

So clearly the setting for Carl Campbell’s Goin’ Back To Nashville wasn’t just randomly chosen by looking at a map when trying to come up with a city to set this song in. It was Carter’s contribution, and for all we know it was his song originally as well.

Certainly it sounds a lot like a Carter song with those little lyrical gems worked into a pretty standard form. There’s also plenty of room carved out for his guitar solo and if the mood is a little more downbeat than most of Carter’s best sides, he certainly was comfortable slowing things down on occasion.

At the very least it was a collaboration and since Carter’s obvious contributions – the guitar playing – and his probable contributions regarding the song’s origins are what stand out most, the unfortunate consequence of these admittedly speculative assumptions is that Carl Campbell not only doesn’t get much credit for what works on the record, he gets the lion’s share of the blame for what doesn’t work.


Nothing There Do I See
It’s fittingly ironic that the record label that has been the source of so many really good songs in rock’s first three years winds up with a single where neither side is all that good, yet still provides far more intrigue than its musical contents would justify.

The problem with speculation, even if it’s loosely based on a few factual nuggets that have been unearthed before we came along, is that very little of it can be proven or disproved. It’s even possible this release was only scheduled and never saw the light of day, or perhaps just had a few copies printed up and no distribution. All of which means this speculation could possibly lead to wild theories springing up in the future if such “information” falls into the wrong hands and is taken as fact.

Of course, that’s assuming people who are devious enough to do such things would feel that spreading misinformation about obscure artists in a largely overlooked era of rock ‘n’ roll that is now seven decades in the rear view mirror is worth their time and effort to do.

But then again, since little else about Goin’ Down To Nashville is likely to be of interest to anybody at all, maybe throwing out a few suppositions to the hundred and forty million fervent readers of this site might encourage some intrepid investigator to put in the time consuming legwork to make sense of all this so we can stop speculating on such questions as to who sang what songs under which name.

While they’re at it maybe they can also determine whether this 16 year old kid found his baby in the Tennessee Valley after all or if she heard his nasal voice coming from miles away and fled to Kentucky where she got a job cleaning paddocks at Churchill Downs while playing in a bluegrass band under an assumed name every other Thursday night and sold moonshine on the side until passing away of natural causes in 1997 without ever telling us the real story surrounding this twisted saga.


(Visit the Artist page of Carl Campbell for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)